This Train Unbound
By Margaret Elysia Garcia
My lover and I rode the northbound/southbound trains to find each other. We never dated. There was never a knock at the front door and a quick check in the mirror for a hair out of place. There was never a deep breath taken before a word of poetry was spoken or a shaky voice expounded on a precarious opinion. After six years and one month of a tormenting attraction, he boarded a train to visit me. No more phone calls or love letters to hide from girlfriends or boyfriends—just endless trains.
Once I had a car, but it died on the 101 Freeway just outside Pismo Beach. I sold it for parts to a mechanic who said it would be too expensive to fix. I bought a bicycle with the cash and never used it.
My lover had a car once too. He drove an old Fairlane he bought for $200.00 from the family of an old man who had died in the Ford. My lover never removed the cigarette butts in the ashtray of the car as a memorial to the old man who had taken one too many naps in the vehicle with the windows rolled shut, even on hot days. The car couldn’t live without the old man. It was dead in six months.
We were the only southern Californians without cars. Mornings, I would imagine myself in my bed and him in his bed. Behind my eyes I could see a giant transit map and footprints leading from my door, bus stop, bus stop, to Union Station––the long corridors, the San Diegan. It seemed miraculous that I could arrive so smoothly at his side, to his lips, to his scent. True, a car would have been quicker, but where would the romance have been? I would have been caught up in directions, traffic, wrong turns, the need to fill up the tank with only twenty bucks for the entire weekend. I get lost too easily. Sure, I could have gotten on the wrong train but that would just have been another direction.
I lived in unincorporated, no man’s land Los Angeles County and he did not. The distance between us was too close for airplanes. Thus, we had to ride trains.
We were never on the same train at the same time. No weekend vacation excursions. No mistress-in-the-hotel-room type of affairs. I traveled alone and, as far as I knew, so did he. We never took a trip together at the same time. The same time meant admitting a relationship had grown somehow between us. I have never imagined sitting side by side waiting for a conductor to punch holes in a distinctly similar destination with him.
There was little talking. This was not an affair––it was just what happened at the end of the line. The trips were plain. Perhaps a dinner was made, a walk to the liquor store, a cigarette or two. I’ve been to his city a thousand times and I’ve never once seen it.
When Amtrak announced its closure of the Del Mar station, I figured we’d be ending soon. There were only a few trains left. Del Mar wasn’t the greatest of stops, but it was our station. If you let it be known that you were getting off at Del Mar, old men on the train would turn around and nod. “Racing, eh? That’s some track,” Old men muster in low cracked voices. No, it’s not. The sand and the rock tear and beat the horses’ hooves. We run their lives out quickly there.
People disappear on and off trains quicker than any other mode of transportation. I am convinced of this. In seconds, I was always the last one left on the platform. That’s how I lived out of my fantasies. Me wearing my hourglass black dress with the petite white daisies, wishing I had the courage to wear a hat. Me stumbling towards him in slightly squared black high heels that were a size too big. My hair swept up in a bun on the train and let loose on arrival. My mouth demanding kisses. I used to light a cigarette too, but you can’t smoke in the city of Del Mar anymore.
For years. For years I’ve been telling friends and co-workers that I’m going away for the weekend there and they have given me names of restaurants, bars, beaches. I know nothing. I know the inside of a train, a platform, and a studio apartment dressed in black and covered in photographs. I know a man with a soft, soft voice that sometimes disappears for months at a time. I know a full moon through his window that I’ve begged forgiveness from many times over as I lie on my back. Under his window I lie on my back smothered in sex and down pillows. Pray. Breathe. Pray. Breathe. Hips circling. Oh my lover, why did you have to be so easy? Why did trains have to be our metaphor? Why did I still like it like steam engines? Next stop. Round trip weekend excursion rate. Good-bye, yes, you are it for me and one-day I will leave and you will leave and we will quit riding trains. I can feel the rhythm of that line playing over and lower, grinding into the tracks.
I know every train station and every mission on the coast of California. My favorites were the ones broken down with peeling stucco and mildewed Spanish tile. No difference, really, between the missions and the stations. Pigeons fly at you like bombers in both, pulling up over your head at the very last moment. Either place has angels in the rafters—either can make you a slave. Fullerton station used to be like this before they added a cafe and cleanliness. Soledad mission is still in ruins. Most things look at their best in decay.
I know when a train is coming. I can feel them with hand and eye, our silent movie. I can sense a train without touching my hand to the rail. This is neither a gift nor a talent. This is acquired. This is months and years of knowing precisely when your lover is going to call and invite you to come to him. When I pace the cold hardwood floor of my apartment or when I wake in the night not needing a glass of water but needing him to be in my bed instead of the him that is there–it is then that I sense the trains. This is practice. And practice makes liars. Uneasy laughter rocks me back to sleep and the night light shines into my face. The whistle blows. My companion at the moment, under the tracks of sleep. I am the sound of an oncoming train.
Today is our last day, I mean it, our last day–you could part the air like the Red Sea and I couldn’t find my way back. I was on one side of the tracks and he on the other; everything between us stained and tainted. I refused to have him wait with me for the train. There was nothing to say. Good-byes are wishful thinking. I’ll miss yous—insincere. I had a good time, but I don’t even know what that is. Thanks for everything. Don’t wait. He never left me at the station with that much time, anyhow. The train perpetually five minutes behind us, pushing through and apart. A slight push of the hand against the chest. No eyes meeting. From the comfort of the train I could see him stare and wait and watch! I caught him in the almost one-way glass–was that rain across his face? My love, are you questioning? Which woman? I want to at least pretend that tear is for me.
A friend of mine constantly drove to meet his lover in Bakersfield. She rarely came to Los Angeles. She didn’t own a car, and wasn’t a train rider. She was a bus and bicycle girl. He would get into his car and drive alone to Bakersfield three times a week. Drove into the arms of a woman who would not speak of herself, of love, or of them. She’d tell him to drive on the open roads outside town but never tried to tell him where to go, specifically. They’d neck in truck stop parking lots. When he’d leave Bakersfield she’d look at him as if he were never coming back. He thought she had premonitions for disaster and was extra careful on his journeys home to Los Angeles. Look both ways. Look both ways when crossing commitments and girlfriends. Eyes peeled. Eyes peeled back for both semi-trucks and oncoming trains.
One day, she was pregnant. The next week, she aborted. They asked me where to take her. They asked if I could hold her hand if he couldn’t. He’d stroke her hair and whisper, you don’t have to do this, and I care about you, and she could hear the clinking sound of the car keys still in his pocket and it made her cry. Still she didn’t speak about herself. She wouldn’t let herself feel anything but three long needles dilating her body, poking at her muscles until they had no strength to fight. She wanted to be awake. She wanted to know the moment when life would travel out of her, and then she could stay in her dusty thick-aired room with the window halfway open and the screen kicked out. She could lean on the sill and stare out at three abandoned cars in the yard that would not, could not drive away.
One night, he showed up at my door, sleep deprived, his hair sculpted into oily canyons. He said he was flying off to Prague. Why not take a boat, I asked? He was flying to London, training to the coast, ferrying to the continent, armed with only a Euro Pass and the phone number of an uncle in Prague. I whole-heartedly approved of his travel arrangements. But, where is your woman? I asked. The day before he’d risen at 3:00 am and stood under the shower. He desperately needed to know her. He needed her to speak. The sad lover bit had finally worn thin–and he couldn’t stand it anymore. He soaped and scrubbed his face raw as the revelation struck him. He tried to shave away his thoughts but they clung to his face. I want her to not be afraid.
On the road to Bakersfield in the complacent, early morning sun, old men at the Arco station agree that you could tackle a drive to Bakersfield in less than ninety minutes. If you drive fast. If there is no traffic. If you do not have to stop for trains.
Sometime around 7:00 am, he arrived at her half-open window. He gave himself a splinter when he grabbed the pane too quickly. Watch for danger, my friend. Awake for hours, she heard the noise of his car up the road and lay perfectly still hoping not to give her alertness away.
Once and for all will you talk to me?
Will you tell me what you want from me? Will you marry me, this stranger outside your window?
Silence. Then. Is that what you want?
She sat up in bed and looked at him amazed and frightened. If she said yes to his offer of marriage, it would have to be right then. She’d get up right then and he’d speed them off to Vegas–not stopping for breakfast. No fast food coffee in Barstow. All the way. On his knees outside her window he begged her to speak, begged her to say she loved him, begged her for his life–and offered her marriage.
This was the moment I had always wanted to have. Always. Always. Always. She leaned over the window and kissed him until he felt his toes fall apart from his body. For a second he saw his lover driving on the open road with him—and then she pulled away. She said good-bye. She shut the window. His eyes squinted from the dawn, and he raised his hand to his forehead to help him see. It took three hours for him to drive home alone. Two long cargo trains detained him at two different intersections, the final one on Washington Boulevard when he was but ten miles from his home. The trains gave him time. Time can be a new lover. Time to play their last scene in his head over and over again before he pulled into his street. He flew directly to Prague a week later and I have never heard from him again.
When I returned home from his city that evening there was a message from my lover on the phone. He was weighing out decisions he’d not made about me, her, perhaps more. I could never dare assume that the trains brought only me. I compared his voice and the exact placement of the words in his sentences with older messages and letters with a similar subject. Surely, in this message there was a difference? I sat in my rocking chair along time. Didn’t rise from it until dark. Later, I called and left a message when I knew he wouldn’t be home. I called not knowing what I would say. There was a map of California hanging by my telephone. There was a master card in my wallet with available credit. I called and told him the first thing that came into my head.
I’m booking a flight for San Francisco. I felt overdue for a northern visit. My first airplane in years. Sure, my love, there are trains that reach that far. But they take all day and they don’t reach into the city. I’m a southern Californian. We don’t take kindly to whole days of travel unless it means we are headed to New York City or London or Tokyo. What’s a fifty-seven minute plane ride? A landscape through clouds and not tracks. I can’t trace my path in the sky.
One day, I met a man in San Francisco. He was losing a bit of his hair, was a frequent flyer, and had eyes that were far too fearful to have more than one woman. Late at night, we would walk to the ocean and spill our pasts. He said I love you without averting his eyes. No hesitancy traveled in his veins, no stuttered commitment in his voice. He once flew to Los Angeles just to kiss me. I flew north to make him dinner, to make love, to make it easier—to try and make things work normally.
You have to make plane reservations in advance. You can’t buy the ticket once you’re in the air.
I am a girl who lives in symbols.
Truth: the train is more romantic. The whistle blows for the engine to begin its movement. The engine races to its next destination in the dark. The train rides on crosses carried and set by countless men. The work of sweat and deaths. The reward of waiting women.
Union Station’s vaulted ceilings house old men and angels. The sun pours into the windows across the wood to warm the pigeons and the vagrants. I used to picture my old lover waving to me from the platform after a war, any war in black and white. Greeting me with one of those spin the girl around kisses. Del Mar station rests in peace beside the waves of white children, manicured beach homes, surfboards, salt air and seagulls. But the tracks were too close to the sand. I don’t travel south for the winter anymore. I take my springtimes in the fog or in the mountains awaiting daffodils to push up through the snow.
The airports proved too sterile. All the detection. All the things you cannot hide anymore. They crowd easily: full of people delayed with immediate destinations. Custody battle children and the blacksuit deals. There’s a persistence you don’t find on trains. Airplanes: an intense, gray speck of time between one world and another. If you fly far enough you can make a day disappear. In another direction you can live the same day twice. Neither has ever been appealing to me.
But on a train, you can see derailment coming from two miles away down the track. You break hard again, and again. In an airplane, the metaphors have too many wings.
I am northbound in the sky over Santa Cruz. In a few minutes, the pilot will tell us to prepare for landing in Oakland. I have time for two Hail Marys. Please to the goddess, I ‘m serious this time. Let me land. Let me love him. Let this one be the one that keeps me mesmerized. Let him be the one who travels with me. Let me never tire of window seats. Thank you for flying. But I am no Catholic anymore and when I see my new lover waiting for me at Baggage Claim, I want to be a lost piece of luggage, to go unclaimed. This could have been a good flight—hardly any turbulence at all. But I will fly through the weekend and not come back. He has that look. A look that says I’ll do anything for you. Scale the heights of therapy and monogamy and marriage. I look at him again. Don’t take me to the airport, I’ll get the Super Shuttle.
I need to ride the rails—something that breaks down or has to slow down and stop for hours and wait for something faster, better, more modern to pass. My type of love is obsolete, screeches to a metal on metal halt. I am the threat from the spark and the dead, dry land that burns. I need the threat of extinction to reach ecstasy.
Not long ago, he called me. In the background, the 5 o’clock train raced by––its whistle echoing off the canyon walls on my side of the phone. What is that? He questioned, but if I read his voice correctly, he wasn’t asking what sort of sound it was. You live by a train route now?
He was asking, I believe, what the quiver was on our skin at that moment our bodies touched, the sound that always delivered us from living in our heads to living in our bodies. Yes, I know the clichés of trains, but this was no bullet train in a concrete tunnel. This was a different sort of ride and a different sort of wreck.
When my old lover calls, he says he’s no longer in his city. I’ve long since left
Los Angeles. What train is that I’m hearing, he asks? But there is rarely a day when I don’t think about the trains and how they brought me, if not to true love, then true desire––to a scent and vibration all at once animal and celestial. There are no passenger trains that stop here in the Sierras. It’s all freight. I hear a whisper on the other end.
He is in another state, another mind altogether. You can take the train as far as Chico, I tell him, but from there someone has to pick you up to take you ninety minutes into the mountains and forest. It’s not easy to get here, I tell him. You really have to want to come here. Though I know that the metaphors have been altered and mixed, I don’t care. I watch the freight cars snake through the mountainside. I think of him hopping freight cars, sliding the doors open, rolling down hills, dirty, sweaty and wrecked–finding me sitting by a window. Me, praying to the moonlight once more.